Would you horse meat? How is it different from veal, besides taste of course? (Tony Cenicola / The New York Times)

September 21, 2020

Would You Eat Horse Meat? — Understanding Cross-Cultural Food Taboos

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When we hear the words “food taboo,” we often conjure up horrifying thoughts of eating dogs or horses; you may gag, or your skin could crawl, at the idea of consuming animals which many Americans would consider members of the family. Yet ask someone from Salento, Italy, about their opinions on horse meat, and they may enthusiastically reply that it’s a delicacy often featured in dishes like pezzetti di carne al pomodoro. 

As food is becoming globalized, more countries are adopting what I would call the Universal Modern Cuisine — the diet most prominent in America, which revolves around grains and which, more importantly, holds many taboos against meat. As a result of this, the practice of eating horse meat is slowly declining, even in Italy. Regardless, Italy still remains the largest consumer of horse meat in the European Union, and its consumption is much more normalized in Italy than in the U.S. Given horse meat’s prevalence in Italy, it’s clearly enjoyable for many and must not have any adverse health effects for the consumer — yet most Americans would be extremely wary of any restaurant advertising this delicacy. Since we have already established that there is nothing inherently unhealthy or dangerous associated with eating horse meat, why do millions of people still avoid it for seemingly no reason? This exact idea spurs the study of taboos; though there is no definitive consensus about why taboos exist, scholars all over the world have dedicated themselves to understanding how taboos originated, and the modern implications of taboos in a global food market.

The word “taboo” itself comes from the Tongan word “tabu” and describes something sacred upon which social prohibitions are imposed, according to the Dictionary of Sociology. The Oxford Companion to Food further elaborates that “a prohibition based on some fully explicable reason would not…count as a taboo.” Additionally, taboos can have a religious component as in the case of Kosher and Halal food law — more on that later. The final definition by the Oxford Companion to Food is especially important when discussing food specifically. Someone might avoid gluten, dairy or legumes because they feel that these foods make them feel poor. Another person may eat vegan to make a statement about the cruelties of modern meat farming. Though these two habits both involve avoiding specific foods, they miss the crucial element that would transfer them into taboos — mystery. Avoiding a food allergy has a clear reason that motivates the habit, and the eater is consciously aware of their decision not to eat the food. Yet most Americans have never made the purposeful decision to avoid dog meat for some clear-cut health reason; the mere suggestion that someone eats dog meat would likely promote an automatic disgust-response, which rarely occurs when we think of food which we avoid merely because it’s bad for us.

So where does this visceral and immediate repulsion come from, and why does it occur in some form or another in every studied society on Earth? Ambiguity surrounds taboos and shrouds them in intrigue; how is it that all humans experience this phenomenon, yet we are almost completely unable to explain it? Various hypotheses have been proposed as to the origins of taboos. For the purposes of this column, I have split the theories into two main categories: The social camp and the pragmatic camp. However, as I explore these arguments, I will propose that the true answer as to the origin of food taboos actually lies somewhere in the middle of these two theories.

The first group of hypotheses suggests that taboos originated as a means of social cohesion; that is to say, that taboos were created in order to bond a society together in some way. A major branch of evolutionary psychology is dedicated to studying in-group favoritism. This topic describes humans’ tendency to favor and cooperate more with those we consider to be in our “in-group.” In-groups are typically small, exclusive groups of people who share similar habits, interests and derites. Despite this definition, the breadth of an in-group’s distinguishing characteristics can vary depending on context. An in-group could be as small as a clique of three friends who share the same specific interests. However, if an American were to travel to a foreign country and meet another American, they might extend their in-group to include all Americans; at the moment, their nationality binds them to each other and creates this shared identity.

In-group favoritism is a powerful force which can occur as a result of many different identity markers. Also called “ethnocentrism,” in-group favoritism can promote hostility and even outright hatred towards those we deem to be outside our circles. These feelings can, in a historical setting, promote war and other conflicts between tribes. In this sense, in-group favoritism can even be dangerous towards those who we don’t identify with. Language is a particularly prominent creator of in-group identity; our speech styles, grammar, vocabulary and dialect all are just a couple of linguistic ways in which we create our in-groups and exclude others. Dialect and cultural cuisine share multiple commonalities that cannot be stressed enough. Both are specific and unique to relatively small groups of people, thereby making it easy to identify someone’s identity based on their speech or eating habits. Additionally, both are salient markers that observers are aware of; that is to say, we could describe stereotypes of particular dialects or cuisines if prompted to do so. When we come into contact with one of these markers, we quickly make unconscious judgements about whoever we are watching. These judgements are unavoidable and automatic and have the power to both hurt and help our social interactions. If our dialect or eating habits align with those of the person who we are observing, we trust them slightly more on an unconscious level, though they have done nothing to earn this trust. Conversely, should our habits differ, our brains will label the other person as a member of the out-group, subjecting them to partial exclusion without much basis.

Cornell Professor Kaitlyn Woolley of the Johnson School has studied the effects of food on levels of trust between strangers; when strangers consume the same foods, their social interactions tend to go smoother, and they report higher levels of trust in the other participants. She then repeated her experiment, but instead of having the participants eat the same food, they wore the same clothing. Though in both versions of the experiment the subjects shared a commonality, wearing the same clothes did not produce the same elevated levels of trust and cooperation between subjects. Therefore, I would argue that this is an example of in-group favoritism: The experiment promoted psychological responses of heightened trust, improved cooperation and increased willingness to help the other participant, all of which are effects also seen in cases of in-group favoritism. In our modern world, this study would suggest that food is one of the most effective ways in which to promote societal cooperation and create a group identity. 

What is a food taboo if not simply a shared culinary preference? Hypotheses claiming that taboos originated in order to promote social cohesion rely on this fact. Since we have already seen how similar food preferences can help groups of people work together, having a shared cuisine could have been a useful tool for prehistoric societies looking to keep their citizens happy and cooperative with each other. Taboos are a very salient way of marking a cuisine and, hence, in-group identity. These are foods which a community eschews almost without exception; the consumption of taboos involves very little gray area. Thus, an early human could define their society based on the foods they did not eat, as these might have been the most obvious ways of distinguishing one community’s cuisine from another. In order for a society to thrive, its people must want to stay together and help each other because of some bonding force. Food, and by extension taboos, was a crucial factor in maintaining group cohesion and allowing societies to survive the passage of time.

The “social cohesion” theory is not entirely complete, however. To fully explain how societies might have used food taboos to survive, we must explore what I call the “pragmatic approach.” This describes the ways in which food taboos promote physical benefits for a community rather than psychological ones. The concept of a “physical benefit” can manifest itself in many ways — some of which are called “indirect benefit factors.” These indirect benefit factors, for our purposes, are unintentional positive effects of a community’s eating habits on the community’s environment and ecosystem. Some scholars hypothesize that taboos have evolved to promote more of these indirect benefit factors. If a keystone species was tabooed, for example, it could never be hunted to extinction for food, therefore disrupting the food chain and the community’s surrounding nature. Others believe that taboos evolved to prevent overpopulation by limiting a community’s food supply. There are inherent flaws in these two arguments in particular: First, many food taboos exist which have virtually no impact on the surrounding environment. The overconsumption of snails, for example, is unlikely to cause the downfall of an entire ecosystem, yet the social prohibition of snails still exists in many countries today. The theory claiming that taboos prevent overpopulation also has some glaring flaws. Why would evolution work to prevent populations from growing too much but not develop a similar means of preventing famine? For the theory claiming that taboos prevent overpopulation to be correct, there would need to be an opposite response to times of scarcity. Yet humans don’t let go of their food taboos easily, even when they are close to starving. How is this evolutionarily advantageous?

Though these two pragmatic theories are incomplete, still more exist which may come closer to telling the full story. Meyer-Rochow, author of the article “Food Taboos: Their Origins and Purposes,” claims that taboos “are often meant to protect the human individual.” This can manifest itself, for example, as an entire community prohibiting allergen-containing foods. If a large portion of a village is allergic to shellfish, for example, it would make sense that this allergic population would avoid the food. The rest of the community might also start avoiding the food over time, inadvertently protecting those who might be allergic but not know it. Eventually, this avoidance could become tradition — or, in other words, a cultural taboo. Food taboos have likely kept many people healthy all throughout history simply because many societies restrict consumption of historically prominent carriers of food-borne illness. Pork, for example, was often viewed as a “dirty” food throughout history. Maimonides, an ancient Sephardic Jewish philosopher, particularly shuns pigs for their propensity towards eating their own feces. Consequently, to avoid pig would have been to protect yourself and your community from the literal uncleanliness of the animal.

Maimonides’s religion should not be understated; as a Jewish philosopher, he was undoubtedly deeply familiar with Kosher food laws. The Kosher diet displays how the social and pragmatic theories can combine in order to protect a society. Judaism instructs its followers to keep Kosher, or follow an extensive list of food restrictions and rules for preparation. These restrictions could be called taboos, especially in ancient times. The Twelve Tribes of Israel placed great importance upon maintaining their in-group identity, and their food laws aided them in this quest. One popular theory for the reasons behind why the food laws were implemented points out that a strict diet could dissuade ancient Jews from marrying outside their religion. After all, it’s simply easier to eat the same foods as your spouse than it is to follow two completely different diets. From an energy expenditure standpoint, it requires less energy to cook one meal than it does to cook two separate meals. As a result, this could have been a motivator for Jewish people to marry other Jews, thereby preserving their religion and the strength of the community.

Islam, like Judaism, promotes a religious diet centered around “clean” and “unclean” foods, or “halal” and “haram” foods. This emphasis on clean/unclean foods draws us back to the pragmatic argument, which states that food taboos at least partially originated to improve public health through avoiding foods which commonly sickened people. As a powerful political, military and religious force, it was especially important for Islam to keep its community healthy. When an animal is butchered for food, the Muslim butcher must slaughter the animal in a clean, humane way while invoking the name of God. Even prior to the animal’s death, law states that the animal must be raised in sanitary conditions and have space to roam. These cleanliness requirements, as we now know today, were crucial in maintaining the health of both the animal and the consumer. Though this is impossible to prove, by requiring that Muslims all eat clean meat, many ancient Muslims likely avoided some nasty sicknesses.

Moreover, the mere act of combining religion and diet is to insert religion into one’s everyday life. We all eat at least three times a day on average, and hunger is an unavoidable part of the human experience. Religion, on the other hand, is fairly easy to forget about. Someone may wake up in the morning and realize they forgot to pray before bed because they don’t have a physical, bodily response to forgetting prayer. It’s impossible, however, to forget to eat indefinitely. When a community brings God and diet into the same sphere, the food becomes a means of showing devotion to God. Suddenly, the practitioner is calling upon God multiple times a day through their diet, further strengthening their in-group religious identity.

At the end of the day, however, can we truly call religious food laws “taboos?” There is no clear-cut definition about exactly what constitutes a taboo. Though most will agree that food taboos are food that is generally avoided by some group of people, this is a very vague definition which does not encompass all that a taboo is. Though a Jewish American might keep Kosher and therefore avoid pork, their identity as an American likely means that dog meat is a taboo for them as well. It’s difficult to imagine this person having the same reaction to both types of meat — though it’s possible the pork would abhor them just as much as the thought of eating dog meat probably would — it’s unlikely that the reaction to both types of meat would be exactly the same. Pork might slightly disgust the Jewish person if they still associate it with uncleanliness, but I highly doubt that being offered bacon would create the hugely powerful repulsion that most Americans feel when we think of eating dog. Thus, I propose that taboos come in multiple levels of severity. Further, a food must be avoided in an entire community for it to be considered a taboo. That is to say, a single person avoiding broccoli for some inexplicable reason cannot count as a taboo; but if this practice has grown to encompass multiple households and much of the community without a clear reason why, one could argue that it has become a food taboo in that particular community.

I also wish to question why some food taboos have persisted into our modern day; we live in a fairly safe food environment, and the risk of getting sick from grocery store pork is fairly low. Jewish people no longer live in tribes, and marriage between two different religions is common. Jainism even prohibits eating after dark, should the eater accidentally consume a bug without being able to see it. Yet most now live with electricity — so why have this practice and so many other food taboos persisted into the present?

Though some food taboos may have originated for explicable reasons, it’s very likely that their modern prominence is the result of pure tradition. Even though the pragmatic reason for avoiding pork — to keep healthy and away from dirty foods — may be almost voided by now, there must be some driving force, which keeps eaters from diving straight into a hot plate of barbecue ribs. As was already established, food is an effective way of uniting societies and of establishing an identity. Therefore, the continued prominence of food taboos in today’s society must be at least partially due to tradition and the social benefits of sharing a cuisine with other people. While I will likely never be able to decide definitively why food taboos are such a worldwide phenomenon, I am confident that finding a middle ground between the social arguments and the pragmatic arguments can bring us closer to answering this question. Food has never been simple or easily explained, so why should food taboos be any different? Similar diets can help us connect to each other because, above all else, human beings desire to be welcomed and accepted by those around us.

Amelia Clute is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].